Before I start, I want to be absolutely clear: I really do love The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Seriously. While I don't think that it was one of the best movies to come out last year, it was one that I highly enjoyed--which is more than can be said of a lot of things I've seen in the last year or so.
But as much as I like The Hobbit, it is not a good movie. At all. In fact, it's easily the worst of the four Tolkien adaptations by director Peter Jackson. Not even the padded, plodding theatrical cut of Two Towers can really hold a candle to The Hobbit at its worst. Which is a shame, because there is a good movie hiding in The Hobbit, and it features some of the best scenes in the entire franchise.
I know that I'm going to get some blow back from some friends for dissecting The Hobbit, but I think that understanding why this movie fails might help us understand some of what is wrong with Hollywood movies today.
This isn't to say that The Hobbit does everything wrong. As I said, there is quite a bit that I loved about the movie. As a whole, the casting is very good. Martin Freeman shines in the role of Bilbo, and Ian McKellen still completely owns the role of Gandalf.
The production design is, of course absolutely gorgeous. The set-makers and costume designers obviously put quite a bit of effort into making this world feel like it was real and giving each culture its own identity.
And say what you will about the dwarves of the company being interchangeable, the film does a good job of making them all visually distinct (something not even Tolkien himself managed to do).
I even liked the addition of the Pale Orc. Sure, he wasn't in the book, but I felt that he was well established as a credible threat and plausible leader for the orc contingent of the Battle of Five Armies.
And I wasn't kidding when I said that The Hobbit has some of the best scenes in the entire franchise. Or rather, one of the best scenes. The famous "Riddles in the Dark" scene is fantastic here, and Andy Serkis puts out a performance to rival his best work from Two Towers.
However, none of these elements are enough to save the movie. For The Hobbit has two fatal flaws that are more destructive to the film than any dragon or band of orcs: tone and pacing. Now The Hobbit certainly isn't the only film in recent years to have these twin problems, but few put them in such stark relief.
The problem of tone is one that many films struggle with (Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness certainly did). In a nutshell, The Hobbit and movies like it don't seem to know what kind of movie they want to be. Is The Hobbit meant to be a light-hearted adventure film or a brooding prequel to Lord of the Rings? If it is meant to be a light-hearted adventure, why does it include a scene where Thorin's grandfather is decapitated? If it's meant to be a brooding prequel, why does it feature cockney trolls and snot humor?
Now, I know that the troll scene is a favorite from the book, and I actually don't mind its inclusion here very much (more on that later). What I object to is how completely dissonant the tone here is with much of the rest of the film. Simply put, you can't expect me to take something as a serious prequel when there are snot jokes involved. Likewise, I can't take Into Darkness seriously as a commentary on drone warfare when the cure to death involves "super-blood" and a f*cking tribble.
I understand that storytellers have to mix up the mood of a movie to keep the audience interested. Without a little comic relief dramas and tragedies can be an emotional ordeal to sit through. By the same token, a comedy is allowed to be serious when it needs to be. But when this is done well, these little shifts don't completely alter the tone of the entire movie. Agent Coulson's "death" in The Avengers is a sad moment, but it doesn't distract from the overall tone of the picture.
What we have in The Hobbit is a film without a distinct tone. There is comedy, adventure, tragedy, foreboding and darkness in mostly equal proportions. If the audience is never sure how they are supposed to feel while watching a movie, we can't expect them to care. Nor can we expect them to care when your movie is a thousand hours long.
Take the opening scene, for example. It begins with Bilbo beginning the Red Book in order to tell Frodo the truth of his adventures. From there we get several minutes establishing the Dwarves of Erebor and the dragon Smaug. This is all well and good, and I actually consider it to be one of the better scenes in the film. But then Bilbo is interrupted in his musings by Frodo, and the scene lingers on the two hobbits. And lingers. And lingers. After what feels like twenty minutes of talking about Bilbo's birthday party, we resume our story...only for the plot to halt again for a dinner party with the dwarves. Then the quest has begun--but stops in its tracks for a run-in with the trolls.
Every time the movie feels like it is going to build up some momentum, it pulls the drag chute and grinds to a halt. On the road to Rivendell? Better halt for some exposition about the Pale Orc or Radagast. Finally made it to Rivendell? Better stop the movie dead so that the White Council can have a conversation that only makes sense if you've read the appendices to Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion.
From what I understand, Peter Jackson originally intended The Hobbit to be two movies, rather than a trilogy. When the studio demanded three movies, it was only natural that some padding would have to be inserted in order to stretch the project out. So I understand why Jackson inserted elements from Tolkien's appendices (that and because I doubt audiences would accept a Tolkien movie where Gandalf is absent for the majority of the film). Still, I don't know why he insisted on making the damn thing almost three hours long. I know that he started the trend of movies being unnecessarily long, but one would think that he would have learned from his mistakes with King Kong.
All storytelling media have expectations and limitations on the length that audiences will accept. Books, for example, are generally allowed to be as long as they need to be to tell their story. This is because readers aren't expected to finish the story in one sitting, and each reader will read at their own pace. T.V. shows can run either 30 minutes or an hour (minus commercials). A stage play can be up to four hours as long as there is an intermission.
Movies have a little leeway with run time, but the consensus used to be that most films would be between 90 minutes and two hours long. Longer movies did exist, but they were rare and often had an intermission. After all, there is only so long an audience can be expected to sit in a chair staring at a screen without snack or restroom breaks.
But then Return of the King came out with its 201 minute run time and proceeded to make eleventy kajillion dollars. Hollywood, it seems, saw that and decided that Return of the King was a huge success because of its mammoth run time. This was despite the fact that the biggest complaint about the movie from critics and audiences was the fact that their bladders were ready to explode by the end. So if you ever wonder why Disney decided that they needed to spend 149 minutes to tell a Lone Ranger story, blame Peter Jackson.
Again, I really do love The Hobbit. With another round or two of edits, I think it could have been one of the best films in the franchise. Hopefully Peter Jackson will have learned from his mistakes and The Desolation of Smaug won't be quite as much of a bloated mess. Early evidence from the trailer is not encouraging.
But hey! Benedict Cumberpatch is voicing Smaug!